White River National Wildlife Refuge
Southeast Region
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A Walk in the Woods

by Matt Conner, Park Ranger White River NWR -- July, 2007

Cottonmouth. Credit: Matt Conner, USFWS

Cottonmouth. Credit: Matt Conner, USFWS

Several months ago, I tried to hike into see the champion cypress tree on the refuge. I had heard that the tree is the largest of any species of tree in the state and the largest cypress tree in 40 states. The tree is located by Lower White Lake and at that time there was no trail built to the tree. I had been given the GPS coordinates from our forester Jeff Denman and I brought my camera and tripod to take a picture of the tree.

The Buffalo Gnats had recently expired so I thought I could get into the woods, take a quick picture, and return to the office in no time. I was right about the gnats being gone, but I had underestimated the mosquito population. While carrying a large tripod, camera case, and holding a GPS, I entered the woods trying to swat mosquitoes without hitting myself with the tripod.

I walked a mile and a passed a family of hikers on their way out. I must have been a strange sight carrying all that gear while being chased by a giant swarm of mosquitoes. The hikers told me that they tried to get to the tree as well, but the water was too deep to get to it. I thought about turning around, but I was wearing my knee boots and thought that might be enough to get me to the tree.

I started to walk in the direction of the tree and the water was getting deeper. I had the tripod and the strap to the camera case on my shoulder and slowly went forward as the water level climbed to the top of my boots.

I reached the point where I knew one more step would put the water over my boots and I stood there calculating the cost of this. I knew I had to walk out over a mile or so, but I thought that wouldn’t be too bad and a couple of blisters was something I could live with.

I took a couple of steps forward and the water poured into the tops of my boots. The factor I had not considered now became very apparent to me. I soon learned that balancing a tripod, camera case, and GPS unit while walking through water in soaked boats was not easy. After a couple more steps, the water was up to my thighs and getting deeper. I decided that blisters were not going to be a big deal, but if I dropped the refuge’s camera, I was going to be in real trouble.

I stood still for a moment catching my balance when I saw something swimming in my direction. The water was almost up to my waist now and my boots had sunk to the ankles in the mud. The something I saw swimming in my direction I now realized was a cottonmouth.

Now, I am not afraid of snakes, but I also try not to put myself in situations that are unnecessarily risky either. Instinctively I reached for my camera and pulled it out of the bag. I had a wide angle lens on my camera because I had planned on photographing the largest tree in the state. However, that lens proved to be the right one to use in this situation. I stood motionless as the cottonmouth swam within a foot of me and without looking through the viewfinder; I pressed the button on my camera and starting snapping photos of the snake.

The snake stopped right next to me and floated on the water without moving an inch. I started to wonder how long I would be stuck in this location and if my boss would believe that I was stuck out on the refuge cornered by a cottonmouth.

Suddenly the snake swam away and I pulled my feet out of the mud and wadded back to shore. At this point I decided the champion cypress tree has been in these woods for at least 1,500 years and wont be going anywhere for awhile.

When I later shared this story with my family back in Illinois I was asked the same question by everyone, “why is it you wanted to work there?” I am the middle child of three siblings in my family. Growing up I watched as my older brother had all the privileges of being older and my younger sister received all the attention as the youngest. This left me somewhere in between the two in terms of having my brother as a mentor as I grew up while having a younger sister to play with when I felt like being a child. However, what amazes me about my siblings is the way each of us grew up with different preferences and ambitions in life. My brother went on to be a business major, my sister an interior designer, and of course I chose the life of a Park Ranger. We were raised in the same environment, the same genetic dispositions, yet completely different people.

I have come to realize that this is no different than the order of things in nature. If everyone and everything required the exact same habitat or fed on the same type of food, the environment could not support the impact. Just imagine if every human wanted to live in the exact same city or wanted the exact same job. Or in the natural world, what if every plant and animal could only grow in a bottomland hardwood forest? The competition would increase while species diversity would be erased.

Even the cypress tree I walked into see and the cottonmouth that came over to see me are involved in nature’s design. The cottonmouth is perfectly adapted to live in swamps and wetland areas with its dark coloration and the ability to float in water when not moving. This allows the cottonmouth to use the wet areas as its source of food and habitat while rattlesnakes and copperheads live in the dryer areas and are colored to match those sites better.

I could also ask the cypress tree the same question my family asked me. “Why would you want to live here?” The answer would have something to do with the fact that the cypress tree could not compete with the faster growing sweet gums or the oaks and hickories on the drier sites. The cypress would be over shaded and couldn’t compete with the other trees. However, nature’s design means it doesn’t have to.

Instead of competing for space in an “ordinary” habitat, the cypress has been designed to live in wetlands and areas that other trees can’t survive in. Most trees need to “breath” through the root system to exchange gases for survival. It is for this reason that green tree reservoirs can only be flooded when the trees are dormant, or the trees would suffocate from the roots being saturated under water. But, the bald cypress tree has been given a special adaptation in that it can breathe through the bark. In other words, this tree has a snorkel so it can breathe under water.

I didn’t make it to see the tree that day, rather I had an amazing wildlife encounter that made me stop and think about the complexity of nature and how everything in nature exists in a precise balance. Different species are adapted to different habitats and this provides a bounty of plants and animals each unique in where and how it lives.

We have often heard the old phrase “If everyone were more alike, the world would be a better place.” Well, I would have to say that the wisdom of nature has taught me that variety is the spice of life!

I am happy to report that I have recently returned to the champion cypress tree and we have even constructed a trail to the base of the tree off the Lower White Lake trail. The hike is a little over a mile one way but well worth the trip. I encourage you to stop by the visitor center to pick up a trail map to the champion tree and discover all the variety of the bottomland hardwood forest.

Last updated: September 10, 2008